Technology

NotchUp's Annoying Opening Act


In its quest for members, the new online job search site managed to create a spam snowball and gain a lot of (not always positive) attention

Jim Ambras tried to keep his expectations reasonable. Ambras, a veteran of Web companies including search engine AltaVista, was preparing to unveil a company called NotchUp at the DEMO conference in Palm Desert, Calif. His goal was to have 1,000 people signed up in time for his Jan. 29 presentation at the annual showcase for new products and services. NotchUp takes a novel approach to online job search, matching potential employees who are willing to be paid for a job interview with companies willing to pay.

A week before taking the DEMO stage, NotchUp had attracted a meager 200 users. Pressure to add to those ranks was high in the runup to DEMO, the storied launchpad of such tech legends as the original PalmPilot (PALM) and Salesforce.com (CRM). It didn't help that the company was only just emerging from so-called stealth mode, the phase when startups try to stay off the radar screen of potential copycats. The site is password protected, and the only way to join NotchUp was to get invited by a member. "Our goal was obviously too high," Ambras says.

So NotchUp came up with a quick, seemingly easy, way to boost its membership: enabling users to instantly recruit contacts from business social network LinkedIn. The membership drive underscores the benefits and pitfalls of doing business in an online arena where, with a few mouse clicks, a Web surfer can instantly share information, some of it unwanted, with scores of fellow Netizens. Fallout from the move has generated media buzz and lured investors' interest—but it could also tarnish the company's reputation and incite a row with LinkedIn.

The Snowball Effect

NotchUp had its membership "Aha" moment after a former colleague of Ambras' joined, then proceeded to invite 100 of his own friends. The new member complained at having to type in a name and e-mail address for each of those 100 invitees. There had to be a better way to speed the invite process.

Ambras and co-founder Rob Ellis developed a way for a newly invited members to import contacts from their LinkedIn accounts. Just one of the 100 people invited by Ambras' friend in turn invited 335 friends. Invitations snowballed—the site's membership jumped from 200 to 5,000 the next day.

The servers hosting two-year-old NotchUp were overloaded, and so Ambras moved the site to new, more powerful, servers. Within hours of his presentation at DEMO, the site had 70,000 members. And those 70,000 new members have in turn invited another 900,000 friends of their own. "This is way beyond our expectations," Ambras says. Minutes after giving his presentation he was on his way to his hotel room to make a phone call to turn on even more Internet servers to meet the surging demand. It was, it seemed, a good problem to have.

Big Spam Reaction

But as the history of the Internet shows, no unexpected success goes unpunished. Many of those hundreds of thousands of NotchUp invitees were repeat invitees. In a pattern that repeated itself hundreds of times, several people would invite a single person. Each of those invitations would trigger an e-mail to that person. Naturally NotchUp quickly became known for many e-mailed invitations cluttering up e-mail inboxes around the world.

The reaction among tech bloggers was fast and furious. "Dear NotchUp: Please Stop Spamming Me" was one headline on the tech gossip blog Valleywag. "Holy Notchup Spam!" wrote Tamar Weinberg, a New York blogger on her Twitter feed on Jan. 25 after receiving four NotchUp invites in less than an hour.

The folks at LinkedIn were none too pleased either. LinkedIn spokeswoman Kay Luo says NotchUp has been generating e-mails to LinkedIn members without its consent. LinkedIn is considering measures to tighten access to its site, and possibly sending a cease-and-desist letter to NotchUp. LinkedIn users are able to download their own contacts to export into Microsoft's (MSFT) Outlook e-mail service and other programs, but LinkedIn limits use of its programming tools to partner companies. Harvesting data from its site is a violation of its policies, according to Luo. She says LinkedIn plans to approach NotchUp first to discuss the situation. If it finds the company is violating LinkedIn's terms of service it will send the legal letter, she says.

Media and Investors Express Interest

As of late in the afternoon on Jan. 29, LinkedIn had blocked NotchUp from harvesting its contacts, according to Matthew Podboy, a NotchUp spokesman.

NotchUp had already taken steps to rein in the controversial features. Ellis, who previously worked with Ambras at Peerflix, the DVD-trading service, says NotchUp has placed a cap that prevents any one person from being invited more than three times.

Ambras doesn't expect all those 900,000 people invited to become active users, but NotchUp's debut has certainly provoked interest from the media as well as from potential investors. "We're obviously at the point were we need some help," says Ambras, who along with Ellis, has been providing the needed funding up till now. "We've had a number of inquiries from some of the best firms on Sand Hill Road. I guess some of those people got some invites."

Hesseldahl is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York. With Aaron Ricadela in Silicon Valley

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